If you do any baking, you have vanilla in the cupboard ready for use. I do and I admit, I usually just grab something from the baking aisle in the Supermarket because that is where my mother got hers. Have you ever wondered about Vanilla?
Did you know that Vanilla actually comes from the seed pods of the Vanilla Orchid that only grows in a tropical climate. Did you know that the Vanilla Orchid is difficult to cultivate artificially because of the way it needs to be pollinated? The name Vanilla comes from the Spanish word "vainilla" meaning long pod.
Due to cultivation issues, vanilla is one of the most labor intensive crops so it the second most expensive spice behind saffron. Apparently, the vanilla flower is open only one day and if it is not pollinated, it dies and drops off the plant. The bean is actually a seedpod that grows to between 4 and 8 inches long and takes 8 to 9 months to fully ripen. Each pod contains thousands of seeds but both the seeds and the pod are used in the production of Vanilla.
It turns out that the law requires real vanilla extract to be 35% alcohol because vanillin, the major flavor component, is soluble in alcohol. Although the imitation vanilla brands are not required to have alcohol, most do. In addition, imitation vanilla relies on a wood pulp byproduct to produce the vanilla flavor.
Currently, Vanilla is grown in 5 areas worldwide. The highest quality Vanilla is grown in Madagascar. You've seen it in specialty stores where its known as Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla because its grown in the Bourbon islands which includes Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles, and Reunion. This area produces the largest number of Vanilla beans in the world.
Indonesia is the second largest producer of Vanilla beans. Indonesian beans produce an astringent and woody product while the Madagascar beans have a smooth, sweet flavor. The two countries produce 90 percent of the Vanilla beans. The third region is Mexico which originally produced all the Vanilla but only produces a small percent of the worlds crop today. The next two countries surprised me because I did not know that Tahiti or India produced Vanilla beans.
If you check the ingredients list on the Vanilla but aren't sure what you are looking at, look for the words "Pure Vanilla Extract" rather than Vanilla Flavoring. According to what I've read, using pure Vanilla extract is best if used where it will not be overpowered by chocolate or spices but it all seems to boil down to personal taste.
Unfortunately, I live in a place where having alcohol is illegal and I have to get Trader Joe's alcohol free Vanilla so I don't get busted. I think I'm going to try the "real" stuff this summer when I visit family.